Duke Energy says it plans to dig up and move coal ash from most of its 32 NC collection pits

Duke Energy plans to excavate and move coal ash from a dozen more waste ponds in North Carolina, the company said Tuesday, as it works to excavate or safely close pits seeping millions of gallons of contaminated wastewater each day.

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The residue of coal burned to generate power will be removed from 12 more waste pits at plants in Moncure, Goldsboro, Lumberton and Mooresboro, the country's largest electric company said. Most of the ash, which contains toxic heavy metals, would be moved to former open-pit clay mines in Chatham and Lee counties.

Duke Energy says if regulators approve, it now plans to excavate coal ash from 20 of its 32 North Carolina pits. A state law passed last year requires the Charlotte-based company to close four high-priority sites by 2019 and all of them by 2029.

The company is studying whether to move or cap in place the waste in its remaining 12 basins in North Carolina.

"We're making strong progress to protect groundwater and close ash basins, delivering on our commitment to safe, sustainable, long-term solutions," Duke Energy Chief Executive Officer Lynn Good said in a written statement.

The Southern Environmental Law Center, which spent years pushing lawsuits seeking to force the company's coal ash cleanup, called Duke Energy's announcement a big step forward.

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"We will keep working to see that Duke Energy's remaining unlined, leaking coal ash sites are cleaned up," SELC attorney Frank Holleman said in a written statement.

After years of denials, Duke Energy in December conceded in regulatory filings that it identified about 200 leaks and seeps at its 32 coal ash dumps statewide that together ooze out more than 3 million gallons of contaminated wastewater each day.

The company pleaded guilty last month to nine criminal violations of the federal Clean Water Act and agreed to pay $102 million in fines, restitution and community service. After hearing federal prosecutors allege that Duke Energy ignored repeated warnings about problems at its coal ash pits as far back as 2010, U.S. District Court Judge Malcolm Howard approved what he called the largest federal criminal fine in North Carolina history.

The company is challenging as excessive a $25 million fine imposed by the state Department of Environment and Natural Resources over pollution that has been seeping for years from a Duke Energy power plant near Wilmington.